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North Sea Passage: Kiel, Germany to Gosport, UK (via Cuxhaven, Germany)


July 12th to July 15th, 2003
550 miles; 480 non-stop


From the beginning of dreaming of this halfway around voyage there have been three passages that have weighed most on my mind: the North Sea, Bay of Biscay, and Fiji to New Zealand. While the much longer transoceanic passages are not to be taken lightly, they are all passages in tropical waters where, outside of hurricane seasons (when we will be elsewhere) there are few low pressure systems and storms are rare. However these three passages will be our longest in non-tropical waters and therefore we have the potential for encountering the strong low pressure systems which generate high winds and seas. The North Sea has its own additional hazards of high shipping traffic, shallow waters, few ports of refuge, and the navigational hazards of dozens of offshore oil and gas platforms. Additionally, it would be our first real passage of more than a single short Nordic night.

Despite our worries, or perhaps because of them, in general, we were treated kindly by the weather gods and had light conditions. That is not to suggest that the trip was uneventful. In fact we nearly tee-boned another sailboat, were almost crushed by a freighter, and but for some white-knuckled helming by Nancy could have had the dodger ripped off by seven foot waves. And to that we can add the excitement of the English Channel shipping traffic.

North Sea map
The red line is our actual route sailed. The 56 nautical mile Kiel Canal is the portion of the route crossing northern Germany. Kiel is on the Baltic Sea of Germany. The SW end of the canal ends in the river Elbe, a major river of N. Germany which passes through Hamburg on its way north to the North Sea. Further SW is the massive Europort and Rotterdam, Netherlands which comprise northern Europe’s busiest ports. Also in this region are dozens and dozens of offshore oil and gas platforms.

After two 100 mile days from Copenhagen we arrived at Kiel Germany on the western end of the Baltic Sea. There are two ways to go from the Baltic Sea into the North Sea. If your mast is over 132 feet or your draft is more that 33 feet, then you must sail north up through the "Kattegat" between Denmark and the west coast of Sweden and then turn south entering the North Sea between Norway and Denmark. Fortunately, our mast is only 75 feet off the water and our keel is only 9 feet below the water so we could take the Kiel Canal, thereby saving about 200 miles.

Kiel Canal at Holtenhau
The northeast entrance to the Kiel Canal at Holtenhau, with ships inside and lock gates closed.

We had been advised that we could tie alongside the quay in Holtenau at the entrance to the canal, spend the night and then transit early in the morning. We had a successful docking operation as about a dozen German tourists stood watching, hands on hips, as we raced back and forth securing our lines. Once this was completed, we congratulated ourselves, showered and got ready to go to the market to provision for the passage and then were told that we could not stay there. A very helpful Stanford materials engineering professor directed us to a place in the nearby crowded marina where we could tie-up.

Moving the boat through a crowded waterway, the electronic gremlins struck as the bow thruster/propeller malfunctioned and would not stop "thrusting" the bow to port. This is kind of like making a left turn onto Broadway and not being able to straighten the wheel or stop the car. Instantly we were starting to do donuts at 6 knots into several nearby vessels. I was frantically pushing the on/off button, yelling at Nancy to go below and shut the breaker off and flailing my arms like a windmill to alert the nice-looking people on the boat following us that I had no idea what was happening and was about to ram them. Fortunately, we figured out that by accelerating the boat forward the radius of the turn would be much greater and we could miss several boats. This allowed enough time for Nancy to get to the breaker switch before we hit anyone. The show had provided great entertainment for fellow boats as we looked like complete idiots.

July 12th - Kiel Canal

The 56 mile canal was built by the Kaiser in 1895 and is a fairly straight-forward affair with a lock at either end to connect the non-tidal Baltic with the very tidal North Sea. The amount of raising or lowering is dependant on the height of the tide at the North Sea end and is generally less than 10 feet.

At 6:30 on a clear morning we waited outside the lock for 3 or 4 large ships to enter and then were signaled with a steady white light that yachts could enter. We motored slowly in and tied about 30 feet behind a large ship to a slippery floating dock about 4 feet wide and right on the water. We secured ourselves with 4 lines and waited for the lock to close by sliding a massive steel door across the entrance.

Freighter in the lock
The ship after we had moved forward 10 feet (notice the dent on his bow from prior incidents!)
However, the lock was held open for a last freighter quickly steaming up to get inside. It appeared that this big grey 400 foot mammoth was expecting to tie up right behind us. Nancy and I watched from our cockpit as she moved toward us and the bow deckhand got a line on the stone quay. As she continued to bear down on us, the deckhand started yelling and waving frantically back to the bridge, which we could not see, as he surged the 4 inch diameter docking line trying to slow the ship. Clearly the captain had failed to see us and was planning on pulling right behind the ship in front of us, crushing us like a tiny plastic egg. Nancy asked "is he going to hit us?" "He already has" I mumbled as it seemed impossible that the momentum he had on could possibly be stopped in the remaining 30 feet. Nancy jumped off the boat and I braced myself for our transom to be destroyed in slow motion. Miraculously, the ship stopped four feet short of us with the deckhand’s face red and covered in sweat; I went below to change my shorts.

The rest of the transit was bucolic, like motor sailing through a cow pasture, which was in fact what we did and it smelled like it. We arrived at the far end, Brunsbuttel where the canal joins the river Elbe around 4:00 pm with a sense that the whole scene was about the change. The wind had picked up a fair bit.

We had timed our arrival at Brunsbuttel at close to maximum ebb so that the outgoing tide could carry us the 20 miles downstream to Cuxhaven, which is near the mouth of the Elbe and the entrance to the North Sea. The wind was blowing 25 knots out of the W.

The sailing directions and guides for this area all say something to the effect of: "The river Elbe runs up to 3.5 knots on an ebb (outgoing) tide. The Elbe estuary is extremely dangerous if there is a strong W or NW wind against the tide and waves of up to 2 meters are possible. Extreme caution is required."

So with 25 knots of west wind and a full ebb tide, we were set to see the full force of current against wind as it builds up over a 25 mile estuary. Fortunately, in the last lock before entering the river, another boat was in front of us. It was a 32 foot sailboat with an elderly Swedish couple aboard. We let them go first, to "test the waters". Through the lock gates, the massive muddy river opened before us with huge waves. The little boat turned downstream and into the wind to starboard accelerating like a cork in rapids and within 30 seconds the boat went straight up the face of a wave and crashed down the other side with such force that the hull disappeared as muddy waves washed across its deck. The last I saw the tough Swedes were clinging to the cockpit and sipping tea as the water washed over them.

To my surprise, Nancy watched all of this and instantly demanded to take the wheel from me. She later claimed it looked so bad that she figured the only way she’d be comfortable was if she was driving. Between her boat handling skills and our 25 tons of displacement we seemed to fair better than the Swedes and arrived in Cuxhaven without event.

The actually North Sea passage was fairly calm; we had monitored the weather carefully in advance and with the assistance of a professional "weather router" had picked a weather window that had little risk of low pressure systems or adverse winds. In fact we had to motor through much of the passage due to light winds and our desire to get to England before a projected frontal system hit the English Channel with strong westerlies.

Most of the challenge was navigational and ship avoidance. In some ways the shipping traffic causes less stress here that it did in the Gulf of Bothnia because much of the North Sea has traffic separation zones which confine the large ship to lanes which are clearly marked on the charts. Thus we could confine our encounters to those two or three times when we needed to cross the shipping lanes. However, the volume of shipping made this like a turtle crossing a freeway and we had to pick our spots carefully. To quote the North Sea Passage Pilot: "There are around 150 cross-channel shipping movements on an average day plus around 250 ‘up and down’ movements to which must be added innumerable fishing vessels, yachts, motor boats, all wending there way through the Straits – just 18 miles wide at their narrowest – at speeds ranging from a 3 knot tug-and-tow to a hovercraft at 30 knots. In other words a yacht taking two hours to cross the 10-mile width of the two lanes in the Strait would meet on average 1 ship every 6 minutes."

We did in fact have up to 15 or 20 ships on our radar as we passed the cliffs of Dover around midnight but had no close encounters and proceeded into the Solent under sail at 10 knots arriving in Gosport at Camper and Nicholsons boat yard around 2:00 pm and were at the local pub enjoying some fine English beer by 3:00 pm.

The Neilsens
In Holtenhau (Kiel), we were joined by a great Danish couple, Helle and Gert Nielsen who are friends of our Copenhagen harbormaster. They both are match racing sailors in Copenhagen and race 35 foot keel boats year round, yes that includes ice and snow. This was the first time anyone other than us had handled Apsara and we were a little cautious, but Helle and Gert were competent crew for the whole passage to Gosport and we felt lucky to have them aboard.

We left Apsara at the boatyard for two weeks to have a host of projects done including adding a dedicated weather fax, dingy chocks, repair work to the water-maker, fix a leaking rudder bearing, and a half dozen smaller projects. We spent a few days in London and then a week in the Dordogne and Lot river regions of France while the work was done. (The French were without exception polite and warm to us and even tolerant of our lack of language skills. And, the food was excellent. ) While some of the boat projects were completed as expected while we were away, several things were not done properly and we concluded that leaving the boat unattended at the boat yard was something that we will not do again if the projects are even slightly complicated or involved. We remained at Campers for a week longer than expected as the projects dragged out but finally by August 8, 2003 we sailed for Dartmouth to prepare for crossing the Bay of Biscay.

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